Check Out Our Genealogy Blog »

How We Define Race Might Not be as Clear as Once Thought

How We Define Race Might Not be as Clear as Once Thought Find more genealogy blogs at FamilyTree.comWhat race are you? Were all of your ancestors the same race as you are, or were some of a different race? The way we think about race today is different than how your ancestors might have thought about it.

Rachel Dolezal, former chapter head of the Spokane NAACP, got a lot of attention after declaring that she was an African American. She had altered her hair and skin color, told reporters that an African American man was her father, and self-identified as African American.

Her biological parents, however, had a different idea. They were both white. They told reporters that their daughter, Rachel, was white (with perhaps “a small trace” of American Indian ancestry.) Photos of Rachel, from when she was a young girl, surfaced. She had light skin and blond hair.

Suddenly, it seemed that everyone had an opinion about this situation. Some felt that Rachel Dolezal was white because her parents were white. Others suggested that racial affiliation, like gender identity, depends on what one feels that they are. Still others had the opinion that Rachael was mentally ill.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, courts in the United States ruled that a person’s “true” racial identity depended on ancestry – not personal feelings of experiences. Bliss Broyard points out (in an article about her racial identity) that the legal definition of being black was not the same all across the United States.

Ohio courts ruled that 50% black ancestry, a single black parent, or two mixed parents, made a person black. In Louisiana, the “one drop” rule prevailed – which meant that any person who had any traceable amount of black ancestry was considered to be black.

Enumerators gathered information for the 1940 United States Census. They asked people to identify their race from a series of choices. “W” for white, “Neg” for Negro, “In” for Indian, “Chi” for Chinese, “Jp” for Japanese, “Fil” for Filipino, “Hi” for Hindu, and “Kor” for Korean. If a person did not identify as one of those races, he would have to write the full name of his race on the census form.

The 1940 Census counted people who were Mexican as “white”. That is, unless the person was also Indian or any other “nonwhite” race. A person who had any amount of nonwhite heritage was counted as Negro. People who were mulatto were also counted as Negro.

People who participated in the 1940 Census may have considered those definitions of race to be very clear and precise. Today, those definitions may feel very incorrect to many people. The 2010 Census included 15 separate response categories and three areas where respondents could write-in detailed information about their race.

Image by 드림포유 on Flickr.

Related Articles at

* 1890 Census

* How Much African Ancestry Does the Average African American Have?

* Locating the Ancestral Lineage of an African-American Slave Family And Their Owners

< Return To Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.